The rain spattered mud across the windowpanes from the garden below. The kids and I, tired of one too many Scrabble games, bickered and snapped our way through lunch. There had to be something we could do together that didn't involve the TV. I looked down the hall to my cedar chest sitting in the corner of the living room. Perfect.
The musky sweet aroma of old cedar wafted up from hand-sewn quilts and tattered hankies as I drew back the lid. Little fingers poked and pulled the moment the lid began to creak. I gently, but firmly, pushed their hands back. My four children craned their necks and pushed one another as they waited for me to begin the unpacking, the revealing, the storytelling.
My Brownie badges, a twisted and bent orthodontic retainer, dried corsages, and wedding gloves nestled within, like treasures from a journey I had taken long ago. A journey from childhood to adulthood, from girl to woman.
"Mommy, how old were you when you went to Brownies?" asked my 8-year-old.
"About the same age as you are now."
"Did it hurt when you wore the 'retrainer'?" asked my 5-year-old.
I pulled out quilts their grandmother had made before each of their births. Grandpa, various aunts and uncles, and even a few neighbors had helped complete the gifts. My daughter wrapped hers around her shoulders and began swaying to a silent lullaby. Long eyelashes rested dark on chubby cheeks as she danced around the room.
My oldest son ran his fingers along the stitching, mouthing the words stitched on the border. In a precious, wordless way, they remembered being held and rocked in these quilts. Picture albums, baby shoes, christening gowns, and my journals lay at the bottom of the chest.
"Whose shoes were these?"
"Yours, honey. Can you believe you ever had feet that small?"
"Who wore that dress?"
"You did, Simon. You were beautiful."
"Whose pictures are these?"
I ran my fingers across the brown leather photo album my grandfather had given me so many years ago. The black cardboard pages still felt stiff and scratchy, and corner holders fell out as I opened it. My children crowded around to see a young girl standing pigeon-toed in the snow beside her father. Her teeth shone like the tinsel from a Christmas tree as she giggled, and her father smiled with love.
"Is that Grandpa?" asked my 9-year-old. "That isn't you, is it Mommy?"
I smiled and nodded. We flipped through the pages, pointing at their silly uncles and Grandma's pretty smile. They recognized the smiles, but not the people.
My 11-year-old drew a rusted metal box from beneath the baby bibs. He gingerly opened it and gently lifted a crocheted doily, a bracelet, and a stack of letters. He looked at me with questions in his eyes.
I took the letters and placed them back in the box. "I'll let you read those another day," I said. Nelson raised his eyebrows, clearly wanting an explanation. "You'll have plenty of time to read those mushy, smoochy love letters Daddy wrote to me." He wrinkled his nose in disgust and turned his attention to the other treasures.
All four children sat down, the urge to see everything at once gone, and listened to my stories. I told them about a family with three children and two parents who loved them very much.
I told them about the middle child, a girl, who grew from ponytails and scraped knees to a wildly insecure teenager. They listened as I wove my tale through mud pies and singing in the choir to knitting layettes. No one yawned, pushed, or interrupted as I spoke.
So often I find myself being only a mother to them. "Wash your hands." "Do your homework." "Haven't I told you a million times?" My words get us through the day, but don't bring me closer to them.
As we sat on the floor while thunder rumbled and lightning flashed in the background, they learned that I once made the same mistakes, felt the same loneliness they sometimes do now.
My children loved hearing about my childhood, the marriage that brought my husband and me together, and their births. They held up their booties with bells on the toes and leafed through my old report cards, trying to make it all fit. Some stories never lose their luster, I thought, as I retold tales about my grandparents, aunts, and uncles.
Later that evening, I wondered when the girl who became their mother disappeared. She once wiped greasy fingers on her pants at the movies and stuck bubble gum on her bedpost. She crawled under her covers with a flashlight to read just one more chapter of "Charlotte's Web," and sang off-key just to annoy her brothers in the back seat of the station wagon.
She's still here, and thanks to my children and a rainy afternoon, I found her again. I am more than a mother. I am a complicated tapestry of emotions, experiences, and beauty that can't be realized with a cursory glance.
Like the underside of a tapestry, my cedar chest contains the loose threads of my life, the knots and lumps that explain the picture. They're my alibis, my secrets, and my truths.